The “Checkers Speech” given by Richard Nixon which allowed him to stay on the ticket as Vice-President on September 23, 1952. (Hard to believe that it is almost two-thirds of a century since the speech was delivered.) The speech got its name from Nixon’s use of the pet dog given to his daughters, Checkers, to gain sympathy by stating that the girls had gotten fond of the dog and he would not return it. The speech was classic Nixon: go on the offensive, self-pitying, maudlin and oh so effective. Nixon was never a great orator, but until Watergate he never lost the touch of appealing to the average American. His high brow, usually left wing, critics savaged him, but Nixon never forgot that the purpose of a political speech is persuasion.
A classic anti-Nixon poster asked if you would buy a used car from him. For most of his career, Nixon could have sold a car with a shot transmission and four bald tires to to a substantial segment of the American population and they would have thanked him for it. Whence this power? I think Nixon early tapped into the resentment that a growing number of average Americans had toward the chattering classes that were rapidly losing touch with them, and looked down on them. That Nixon privately shared many of the views of the chattering classes that despised him as the ultimate enemy is one of the greater ironies of American political life during Nixon’s career.
The “Checkers Speech” will always be remembered for this peroration:
One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.
Nixon was only 39 at the time and his rise in politics had been amazing. Elected Congressman in 1946, the first elective office he held, he won a Senate seat from California in 1950 and in 1952 was running for Vice-President. However, his career came close to being aborted with this scandal, at least in regard to ever running on a national ticket. The reaction to the speech was electric by the public, and Eisenhower kept him on the ticket, but it had been a very close call for Nixon.
If Nixon had been tossed off the ticket he still would have been a senator, but the chances of him ever succeeding in gaining the Republican nomination for President would have been nil. His speech had a vast impact on American history, the ramifications of which are still being played out today.